By Leon F. Pinkett, III, Special to the AFRO
As the Baltimore City Councilman for the Seventh (7th) District, I have heard from countless residents in the neighborhoods that border the west side of Druid Hill Park regarding how unsafe and challenging it is to access the park on foot, bike, transit, or while using a mobility device. One of my driving principles as a councilperson is to tirelessly work to improve the quality of life of the people I represent.
The opportunity to leverage national resources with the support of multiple city agencies to achieve the goal of improving the health, safety, and quality of life for 7th District residents is one that I knew I had a responsibility to pursue.
This temporary pedestrian-oriented project running along Druid Park Lake Drive, over the 28th Street bridge, connecting back to the park via Sisson Street invites us to imagine this public space in a different way. From the 1940s through the 1960s, over the protests of the local NAACP and neighborhood associations, City-led, car-oriented planning robbed local residents of Druid Hill Park’s public health benefits. Literally paving the way for White flight, highway projects cut off the predominantly working class Jewish and African American neighborhoods from the park in exchange for faster commute times for mostly White suburban county residents. Construction of the 1948 Druid Hill Expressway and 1963 Jones Falls Expressway resulted in the widening of Auchentoroly Terrace and Druid Park Lake Drive from two lane, park-front residential streets into a roaring five-to-nine-lane-wide highways equipped with only a handful of routinely ignored crosswalks.
In 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began the $140 million dollar project to install two underground drinking water tanks in Druid Hill Park. This project is expected to be completed in March of 2022. The construction has meant that one of West Baltimore’s best recreational assets, the reservoir loop, has been rendered unusable for the next four years. In addition, the project requires taking away travel lanes on Druid Park Lake Drive in order to move heavy equipment to and from the construction site as well as install new pipes under the roadway to service the water tanks. The expected lane closures is a perfect opportunity to utilize and employ a safe pedestrian-friendly model since the travel lanes would be unavailable anyway.
This project allows us to give something back to the neighborhoods that had something taken away–first with the widening of Druid Park Lake Drive and the construction of I-83, further aggravated by the EPA project that removed one of the few safe places to walk and bike in the neighborhood. For the first time in over 80 years, a person in a wheelchair can travel over I-83. Anyone who has ever had to walk over the existing pedestrian bridge; with the broken glass, the overgrowth, and the narrow sidewalk that places you inches from high speed traffic, knows this is a dramatic improvement.
Change is hard. But I imagine it was equally hard, if not harder, for the residents who had invested in this neighborhood when these beautiful homes lined the park, witness their front yard become a six or eight lane thoroughfare for county suburbanites.
This project is about seeing what works. It is about providing choices to the 50% of households that lack access to a vehicle in the neighborhoods that surround the west side of Druid Hill Park. Over the coming weeks, alongside neighbors and artists, we will be celebrating this historic feat with a neighborhood event. We will announce a date soon and hope you can join us. In the meantime I invite you to take a walk. Giving back space to people, and creating a balance to how much of our space we give up to traffic is transformative. All of Baltimore’s neighborhoods deserve this consideration, and I hope that over the course of this project we will receive your consideration and support.
Councilman Leon F. Pinkett, III is a member of the Baltimore City Council representing the 7th District.